Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The last of the Dambuster pilots has died

I'm sure all of my readers are aware of the justly famous Operation Chastise, the bombing of dams in the Ruhr Valley by 617 Squadron of the Royal Air Force in 1943.  It became one of the iconic moments of the Second World War.

The last surviving pilot of the Dambusters mission, and one of three flight commanders of 617 Squadron later in the war, has just died.

Squadron Leader Les Munro, who has died aged 96, was the last surviving pilot to have taken part on the Dambusters raid, which attacked the Ruhr Dams in May 1943.

. . .

John Leslie Munro was born on April 5 1919 at Gisborne, New Zealand, where his Scottish father had emigrated in 1903. He worked as a farmer before joining the Royal New Zealand Air Force in July 1941.

He trained initially in New Zealand and then in Canada, where he completed his qualification as a pilot. On arrival in England he trained on bombers before joining No 97 Squadron, which had recently been re-equipped with the Lancaster.

After an operation to drop mines in the sea-lanes to German occupied ports, Munro attacked industrial cities in Germany during the so-called “Battle of the Ruhr” when Essen, Dusseldorf and Cologne were among his targets. He also flew on two raids to Berlin and attacked targets in Italy. He and his crew were approaching the end of their tour of operations (30 sorties) when volunteers were called for to form a new squadron for a “special operation”. Munro discussed it with his crew and they agreed to apply. A few days later, on March 25, they arrived at Scampton to join “X” Squadron on its formation, later to become No 617.

Soon after leaving No. 97 Squadron, Munro was awarded the DFC for “pressing home his attacks with great courage and determination”.

Within days of arriving at Scampton, all the crews were practising intensive low-level flying including runs over lakes and reservoirs when high-tension cables, barrage balloons and birds were an ever-present hazard. During a trial flight with the “Upkeep” bouncing bomb designed by Barnes Wallis, Munro was flying below the prescribed height of 60 feet when a great plume of water made by the bomb as it made its first bounce damaged the tailplane of his Lancaster.

After the Dams Raid, Munro remained on No 617. The squadron suffered further heavy losses and morale was badly affected. Under the leadership of its new commanding officer, Wing Commander Leonard Cheshire, Munro was made a flight commander. The other two flight commanders were Dave Shannon, an Australian, and the American Joe McCarthy and these three, under Cheshire’s inspiring leadership , created one of the most effective squadrons to serve in Bomber Command. Cheshire described his three flight commanders as “the backbone of the squadron”. Of the three, the slow speaking, taciturn New Zealander was the least flamboyant, but his rock steady dependability and utter reliability were an inspiration to his young crews.

Cheshire was dissatisfied with the marking of targets by the Pathfinder Force and he developed his own low-level marking technique that proved highly successful. Munro dropped flares from high level and Cheshire dived beneath them to accurately mark the targets for the following bombers.

On the eve of D-day on June 5 1944, No 617 flew Operation Taxable, a complex flight requiring extremely accurate flying, navigation and timing. Munro, with Cheshire as his co-pilot, was flying one of the lead aircraft, which flew a series of orbits as it advanced across the English Channel towards the Pas de Calais dropping window (reflective metal strips) to simulate an amphibious landing force approaching the area. This deception created doubt in the Germans' minds as to where the Allied landing was taking place and delayed the despatch of reinforcements to Normandy.

After the landings, the squadron flew in support of troops establishing the bridgehead. On the night of June 8 , it had a spectacular success when Munro dropped one of the new 12,000-lb “Tallboy” bombs, which completely destroyed the Saumur railway tunnel.

On the following nights he dropped “Tallboys” on the E-boat pens at Le Havre and Boulogne before attacking the V-weapon sites at Wizernes and Mimoyecques. After this latter raid, his 55th, heand his fellow flight commanders were “retired”. He had recently been awarded the DSO, his citation concluding with the words, “His achievements have been worthy of the greatest praise.”

There's more at the link.

Few accomplished as much during World War II.  We are diminished by his loss.  May he rest in peace.



Old NFO said...

An apparently a truly humble individual. May he rest in peace!

W. Fleetwwod said...

In my opinion he was a fine officer and a brave man who helped defeat the forces of, let's face it, evil. Of course today he would be indicted by the ICC as a war criminal and condemned by the news media as a "baby drowner." Times have changed.

Bob said...

In what was originally thought to be a crackpot idea - a spinning drum of explosives dropped with the intention to "skip" over the nets guarding the dam - those pilots and crew had to fly straight and true at a specific height determined by two spotlights on the water directly towards the water side of the dam... under withering AA fire from both backs.

Those guys had guts and real real heroes. I salute them all. May Les rest in peace, along with his mates.

0007 said...

I believe that this is the gentleman that my wife and I met while we were up at the Canadian Heritage Warplane Museum back in the early '90's. The museum had the only fully restored flying Lanc at the time and we got to watch it take off and land. This gentleman was by the Lanc while it was on the ground and my wife -who was an absolute Dam Busters nutcase - had a long conversation with him. He was very alert and amiable and spoke with her for as long as she wanted.
I 'spect he was somewhat amazed to find himself talking to a middle-aged American female who could speak with pretty good authority on WWII and things connected to the dam raids.

Quartermaster said...

David Irving has the story on his website. As I recall, it can be downloaded free. It's a great story and good read.